NonviolentPeaceforce-1I walked into Nonviolent Peaceforce at the end of May hoping for a break from the anger that I kept feeling in policy school. My first year at the LBJ School of Public Affairs had been spent in various states of frustration – some minor when I realized that I didn’t leave all the academic bureaucracy in undergrad, but some other, bigger frustrations with some of the underlying assumptions that my class discussions seemed to be built upon. Contrary to my expectations, it often felt as though most the other students and professors weren’t really there to think through what I saw as the policy issues of life and death – to consider the costs of our country’s actions and investments overseas, to really dig into whether the US has lived up to its goals of democracy and freedom (and to discuss what these words mean), and then to talk about how this could be improved and lives saved. Instead, the classroom discussions often felt like the place where professors expected me to get used to the reality of a “best bad option,” move on, and learn how to navigate strategically through the devastating truths that, well, policymakers’ hands are just tied most of the time and there just aren’t good options. We have to focus on what is best for Americans. Sometimes, bombs have to be dropped. Sometimes, drones are the only option. But, based on my news app alerts, it sure seemed to me like those “sometimes” were far too frequent.

Mel Duncan is the co-founder of Nonviolent Peaceforce, an organization with its headquarters in Brussels, a US base in Minnesota, and an office in each of their project areas: South Sudan, Myanmar, Philippines, and the Middle East. Mel has been at the forefront of an emerging practice referred to as “Unarmed Civilian Protection” (UCP) since long before the organization was formed in 2002. He’s an incredibly cheerful fellow – so very Minnesotan – and you’d never guess the things that he’s seen or the experiences he’s been through on a first meeting. But once you get him into storytelling mode, you’d better sit down. In working with Mel this summer, I’ve come to see a different vision for the future of conflict – the vision of Nonviolent Peaceforce. It’s a vision that works to de-escalate conflict and protect civilians rather than responding to threat with violent “shock and awe” tactics or other muscle flexing military strategies.

If you can pull yourself out of the box that our military-centric world puts you in (it’s not easy), the opportunities for creativity begin to emerge. Nonviolent Peaceforce works with local populations dealing with violent conflict on the ground level – recruiting paid, around-the-clock protection officers that represent a different way of engaging in conflict. Nonviolent Peaceforce’s three main pillars — nonviolence, nonpartisanship, and the primacy of local actors – describe the values upon which their work is built. Through real relationships with those on the ground and on every side during conflict, protection officers are able to prevent civilian deaths through monitoring, proactive engagement, capacity development, and relationship building – and it actually works. People on all sides want to be heard – they believe they’re fighting The Good Fight, and acknowledgement and someone to hear them out is often what they are looking for. Violence is one way to get it, but when presented with another option, those involved are often ready to end the devastation that violent conflict brings to their communities. And in the meantime, actors on both sides are surprisingly ready to cooperate with neutral groups like Nonviolent Peaceforce that simply want to protect their families.

It’s not perfect yet – there’s still a lot of analysis to be done on UCP because it is still a relatively new strategy. But in the last year, two high-level United Nations global reviews have been published that discuss UCP: the first calls for unarmed strategies to be “at the forefront” of UN efforts to protect civilians, and the second heralds UCP as a methodology that “has especially proven its effectiveness to protect women and girls.” Nonviolent Peaceforce is working with other NGOs and missions at the UN to pull together support for unarmed response to conflict. With an option like this gaining traction, it’s starting to look a little more hopeful. Rather than military interventions, there are people that are getting creative, learning to listen well, and thinking about options for addressing conflict that don’t involve violent intervention. UCP is by no means the silver bullet solution, but adding it and other nonviolent strategies to our arsenal when approaching conflict is something that was completely missing from the frustrating dialogue I was experiencing in policy school. Nonviolent Peaceforce is doing something to reduce the overwhelming number of civilian deaths we continue to see in conflicts all over the world every day, and I’m excited about getting on board.

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